The flare of a momentarily conjured flame lights up a face in the shadows. Skin the color of honey, sharp angles, hooded eyes and a sardonic smile pulled out of true by a pale scar that, if followed from that full-lipped mouth up the smooth cheek and over the straight bridge of his nose, tells a story of blood. The image fades, but returns a moment later, softer, the light more dim and orange as that scarred mouth takes a pull on a brown-wrapped cigarillo. Darkness returns as Somrak, a god who eschews titles, blows a cloud of aromatic smoke into the midnight air of the Rio Novo district of Three Rats Ward.
He steps out of the shadows into the street, aiming for a group of young toughs under the bridge, near the river which gives this district its name. They are selling some drug or another to desperate addicts that gather around them. The Urbis is awash in drugs, most of them legal, but taxed. Only those which impose a burden on the gods in caring for their mortal, mana-praying flock are outlawed.
One such user stumbles past him, a malnourished girl who might once have been pretty. She looks at him with vacant curiosity, his leathers, now restored to their usual red-and-black coloration, bearing no indication of his membership in the Guardia. Her shrivelled appearance and red-stained mouth tell him her soul is held in possession by a drug called Dream – and worse, the Cobalt Rose variant, which sends heavy users into a dreamworld of vampiric spirits, gentle but hungry. He estimates she’s far gone, not likely to last more than another few weeks, her spirit drained in her sleep, her body neglected in her hated moments of wakefulness. She stumbles on, eager to find a place where she can chew her newly bought prize and return to her sweet, loving devourers.
A lookout whistles ahead. The dealers look toward Somrak, sensing trouble. He is clearly no seeker after oneiromantic pleasures. In fact, he looks very clearly like trouble. The dealers ignore their customers, spread out. Other shadows move now, revealing themselves to be ‘muscle’, carrying knives and machetes, in one case a wickedly flanged homemade mace.
Somrak grins, thinking this stay in Three Rats might turn out to be even more of a pleasure than he expected.
Thoughts of pleasure bring to his mind a pale, troubled face, but often bearing a smile for him, or a frown of anger, or any number of other expressions that have been running through his mind before sleep since he met the death goddess. Before receiving Sky’s request, Somrak had not seriously expected to see Alma again, or at least not for quite some time. He had tried to put her out of his mind. Bonds are weaknesses, he has often said. The fewer the better. But fighting alongside her and Sky and Gwydion in defense of her children, fending off her attempts to heal him – and oh how he always smiles at recalling that look of annoyance she gave him when he refused – and seeing her shattered in the aftermath of killing Nekh, an Archon, all that has left him with, he recognizes, an obsession. It happens every decade or two, and after the first one, which ended in tears and flame, he has distracted himself from them by calling upon the services of certain highly skilled businesswomen, or by engaging in exactly the sort of action he is embarking upon now.
But Fate, curse Her, has a funny way with bonds. For that battle in the Curia was not the first time he met Alma. She does not remember, nor did he remember for some time. Seeing the youngest Bunny, Tulip, the one who was at the time nameless, who indirectly caused the death of Nekh, triggered a memory that over the next few days came back to him with clarity. Memory is a funny thing, for god or mortal, when one passes the century mark. Though few gods become truly senile, the ability to find older memories, even those that have left a deep impression, weakens unless one thinks of them often.
It had been one of his earliest errands for the Commander, soon after he was recruited, to deliver a personal message to Death. It was a sensitive matter, both in the secretive nature of the message and in the delicacy of the relationship between Death and the Commander at the time. They had had a falling out, and due to that, the Commander could not visit himself, but could not cause offense by sending an ordinary Guardia officer. Somrak suspected that the real reason he had been sent was to remind Death that the Commander had a cadre of very dangerous gods and mortals under his command.
But exactly what was behind that posturing has been long forgotten by anyone but the principal players. Somrak went to Death’s palace, was led deep into the labyrinthine halls by a servant, had his little meeting, and was then somehow expected to find his own way out. Naturally, he became lost.
While trying to find his way through the hushed corridors, he noticed a light in one room. He stepped in and saw a child-goddess in the early stage of her transition to adulthood. He could only guess at her years, but such things are less important to gods than their physical and mental maturity – which confusingly do not always proceed hand in hand.
Her hair was white, her skin pale – no surprise, considering the family. She was facing away from the open door, barefoot, leaning forward, her slight weight on one hand which rested on the top of a heavy circular table, her other hand reaching into an elaborate, artfully crafted dollhouse. No, that’s not the right word. It didn’t not seem to be a child’s toy but rather a sculpture, a work of art. It took up the entire surface of the table, more a palace than a house, the walls cut away to make the many rooms accessible. And in those rooms were carved wooden figurines, each of them unique works of art in themselves. She was reaching for one that looked like a child dancing with hands above his head, but she stopped, drew her hand back, and reached for another, a woman with a sword. She set it on the table, straightened, then pulled a cream-colored card from a jewelled box. Picking up a pen, she wrote a few words on the card, then placed that in another room of the palace, and placed the sword-bearing figure on top of it.
She turned to go and was in mid-step before she saw the stranger standing in the doorway, and she froze, her pale-green nightgown swishing about her calves. She looked up at him, afraid, and he felt ashamed to bring such an expression to the face of a child.
“Sorry… Just trying to find my way back to the main hall.” He indicated right and left. “Which way?”
She found her voice. “Who pointed you this way, sir? Guests never come to this part of the house.”
“I think I just took a wrong turn. I promise, I’ll be out of your life as soon as you tell me how to get out of here.”
She giggled, only bringing her hand up to cover her lips as an afterthought. “Or you will be lost again. Even though the way is simple.” She moved closer, into the hallway, ready to lead him. “Please, follow me. I will accompany you to the right hallway.” But she only took three steps before she had to stop, one hand against the wall, the other on her chest.
“Thank you, Miss. I… Are you all right?”
Her skin had taken on an unhealthy ashen cast, clammy with sweat. “Oh no…” she murmured to herself. “It has been weeks…”
Somrak approached, kneeling beside her and hesitantly placing his hand on her back. He could feel the heat radiating off her, a fever that was bringing her temperature even above his own, which was higher than that of the average human. But he knew better than to simply try to heal her or to reduce her fever. Every god is different, and for all he knows this will pass in a moment. He could do more harm than good. “What’s happening? How can I help?”
Her breath shallow and her eyes glazing over, the child looked at him. She seemed to summon strength from within, to straighten her posture and square her shoulders. “I am going to be very sick. Please, don’t be scared.”
It was that moment, there, that he always returns to when he remembers this encounter. That waif, seriously ill, knowing that she was on the brink of passing out, reassuring him and doing her best to compose herself.
“It is…just..a fev–” In mid-sentence, her eyelids sank and her knees gave out.
Somrak caught her, feeling her fever climbing higher. Certain now that this high temperature is nothing usual, he summoned his divine power. As a fire god, he could create heat, but he could also absorb it. It required far more fine tuning than simply starting or snuffing fires, so as he cradled her in his arms, he closed his eyes and concentrated, carefully, carefully siphoning off her body heat little by little, radiating it away safely out his back, so that the air above him seemed to waver slightly.
He remembered that the child was Death Clan, so her normal body temperature was probably slightly lower than average, but he resisted the temptation to reduce it even further. A slight fever would be better than accidentally bringing on chills.
As he became satisfied with her temperature, he heard an aged voice echoing down the hallway. “I swear these children are intent on breaking me to pieces. Are you playing your father’s games again, you rebellious girl–” The voice cuts off with a gasp. “What are you doing with that child?” Somrak looked back to see on old, bent woman scurrying toward him, her wrinkled face scowling.
“She’s fallen ill,” he tried to explain, hoping she would understand. “I’m lowering her fever.”
This brought the woman up short. “Oh, not one of her episodes again! She seemed to be growing out of them.” The woman looks around as if help might just materialize out of the walls, but seeing none, she became decisive. “Stay here, I’ll get someone to carry her to her bed.” She turned to leave, but paused to glance back at him. “And then maybe you can explain why a stranger is wandering about in the private living area of the estate.”
“I’ll be happy to,” Somrak replied acidly. “Just keep your mind on what’s important now.” He glanced significantly at the clammy child in his arms, her hair plastered to her cheeks and forehead by sweat.
By the time his eyes returned to where the old woman was supposed to be, she was gone, moving faster than she had seemed capable. Moments later, she returned, bullying a servant. “Come on, now. You know what to do. Take the little mistress to her room. I will be right there with her.” As Somrak handed the girl over, the woman muttered to him, “As for you, sir, you’re a true gentleman. Thank you for your help. But I will show you to the door now.”
“Will she be all right?” he asked.
The woman shook her head and shrugged. “Isn’t that what we all want to know? She’s been through it before. Always pulls through, my little warrior princess.” There is a hint of near-despair in her voice, however, and fear. “Now, the door.”
He never got the girl’s name, nor the woman’s. And though he never forgot the chance encounter, it was not his place to follow up and ask questions. He hadn’t thought about it for years when he saw Alma, and the Bunny named Tulip who was the exact image of the goddess over a century before. It had taken him a little time to bring the memory back completely, and to confirm that who he met in that room had been Death’s only daughter.
Alma does not, apparently, have any memory of him at all. And that is for the best. He doesn’t want her to think he had somehow arranged to meet her again. No, Fate moves Her pieces for Her own inscrutable reasons. Indeed, he’d been sure he’d never see her again after the fight in the Curia. She’d been exiled to a nothing station in the Fourth Ring, after all. But then, so had Sky, his partner of decades, and so when Sky called on him to come, he came. And he could not deny that the chance to see the fierce Alma again made his stride toward the transport portal a little faster.
But no – him and Alma, it could never work. Not in a thousand years. He just isn’t right for her. He just isn’t right for anyone. That is a matter he’d settled long before.
All this flashes through his mind as the addicts clear off, as the thugs surround him. It’s not as if this early stage of the dance requires his full attention, so he enjoys his cigarillo and his memories. The gang’s display of weapons, flexing of muscles, grimaces and grins are nothing but simple primate intimidation tactics that he’s experienced times beyond number. He waits for the one who will step forward. Ah, there he is. Yes, I thought it would be that one. A little older than the others, thirty perhaps, though so hard to tell with mortals, the leader is bulging with muscles, a weightlifter, his massively overdeveloped chest and shoulders straining at the purposefully too-tight shirt he wears. He towers over Somrak, his face in a sneering scowl, long hair loose, fists empty but clenched.
He says something, voice pitched soft and dangerous. Somrak can only understand a few words of Urbian mixed in with the local patois, but it’s nothing that wasn’t thoroughly predictable. “What are you doing in our territory, what do you want, blah blah blah, eek eek, ook ook.” Primates. Not that there aren’t some quite worthy of admiration. That deadly Saira for example. Or little Cherry, with her wit and forthrightness. Even that tiresome Mrs. Sheila has her good points, if you ignore nine-tenths of what she says. He can almost see why Sky holds these mortals in such regard.
But Somrak did not choose this path for its opportunities to defend the weak and downtrodden, like Sky. He chose it for moments like this.
He feels his scar go tight as he grins wider, cigarillo clenched in his teeth, staring insolently into the huge man’s eyes. He doesn’t say a word. What would be the point? Besides, his silence just goads the gang leader into a higher pitch of rage.
The only question, Somrak thinks, is who will try to hit me first? The man himself, or one of his underlings?
As far as Somrak can tell from the leader’s passionate invective and pointing, he seems to think Somrak is a member of some gang that is supposed to keep to its territory a bit seaward of here. The red and black leathers have them confused. Somrak laughs when he realizes this. The leader stops cold at the laughter, then slaps the cigarillo from Somrak’s mouth, sending it spinning into the night, leaving a trail of orange sparks. Suddenly everything is very quiet. Somrak’s laugh ends, but his grin widens even more.
A hint of fear enters the leader’s eyes, making his mouth lose its quite remarkable scowl for a moment. He steps back and signals for the others to attack.
Time to dance. Finally!
All thoughts of mortals, of himself, even of Alma disappear. A slight consciousness of the need to restrain himself remains, however. It wouldn’t do to burn down the neighborhood, after all. There are surely some people here who don’t deserve what he has to give them. So Somrak, as he blocks, weaves, and strikes and strikes and strikes with fist, elbow, knee, foot, does not draw upon his fire sphere. As much as he would love to, he doesn’t just turn these idiots into the screaming, running torches they so deserve to be. He doesn’t even draw his blades.
But he moves quickly, attacks viciously. He doesn’t really think about it at all, other than keeping himself from going too far. Bones crack, blood is spilled, but major organs remain mostly intact. None of them will ever forget this night. Their bodies will not let them. In future days, some will limp or even roll to the street corner where instead of intimidating passersby, they will beg for coins. Some will have their speech slurred, their vision doubled to their dying days. Getting out of bed will make them feel like eighty-year-olds even in their twenties. Changes in the weather will induce pain in damaged joints. Some will need to wear back braces; some will need canes.
After he finishes with the soldiers – those who failed to run – he pushes a stray lock of hair out of his eyes. His hair-tie disappeared at some point. The Commander often tells him to get a haircut. “No warrior should be stupid enough to have hair long enough to grab,” he grumbles. Somrak chuckles at the thought as he approaches the fallen gang leader, who is trying to stand on a broken knee joint.
The man looks up in terror at the sound. He manages to stand on one foot, leans back against a bridge pillar for support, and clenches those big fists. Somrak is pleased. “Good!” he says, speaking for the first time. “Still fighting. Very good.”
In Urbia, the man grates out, “Why?”
Somrak thinks of telling him that people don’t like being preyed upon, that the drugs they sell are too destructive, that the brute and his gang are bullies and can’t complain when a bigger bully takes them down. He even thinks of telling him that this is little more than a minor workout for him, a distraction from troubling thoughts. But he just says, “That was a nice smoke you knocked out of my mouth.”
Then he casually breaks the other knee.